In leadership, pleasing people is a bonus, not a goal. But what happens when we forget about our own pleasure?
I received a phone call from an associate pastor whose church I had spoken at some years before. He had publicly confessed to the sin of appeasement—popularly known as people pleasing—after failing for a long time to stand up against an injustice in his congregation. Unfortunately, he made a mistake many of us make—one I make so often—the mistake of assuming that acknowledging a sin and repenting of it will make it go away.
That’s our pride speaking: “I’ve seen it, I’ve confessed it, and now I can forget about it.”
If only it were that easy.
A series of events had revealed to him how much he remained entangled in this sin. When a conflict arose between a friend and a colleague, he didn’t want to confront his friend, who was particularly close to his wife, nor did he want to offend the colleague, with whom he had to work. So he languished in indecision and actually made the conflict worse by his failure to provide pastoral oversight and reconciliation. Then his church faced a contentious theological issue that threatened to divide the congregation. This pastor knew he had to come down on one side, but the thought of taking a position that he knew would arouse someone’s anger seemed to go against his personal makeup. After a year of struggling with the issue, he still couldn’t force himself to face it.
The problem, of course, is that when God calls you into leadership—as God had called this man—“being liked” is a luxury you can’t always afford; and this pastor seemed incapable of doing anything that he thought would lead others to dislike him. His sermons made everyone feel good. He was the friendly pastoral teacher whom everyone liked and praised, and he wanted to continue in that role.
Some people would say that merely acknowledging our sin and applying the theological remedy are sufficient. While doing so helps, I believe we can additionally fortify ourselves by looking at the issue more broadly and practically. Without neglecting the spiritual and theological truths (conviction, confession, repentance, trust in God’s future grace), we can bolster our lives by addressing what makes us so vulnerable in the first place.
In this instance, I wanted the pastor to consider why he seemed so dependent on finding his satisfaction and fulfillment in his vocation. “If you are living a life of intimacy with God and have many holy pleasures and enjoyments in your day-to-day life, it’s not so difficult to go to a workplace and know that you are going to disappoint some people,” I explained. “You won’t be so desperate for acceptance if you’re made strong by a full life outside of that one vocational arena. But if you think you don’t matter outside your vocation, if you’ve neglected your relationship with your wife and kids, if you have no pleasurable pursuits outside the church, then you can’t bear to rock the boat at work because work is all you have. Are you addicted to pleasing people because you’ve let your life become too small?”
By acknowledging my need for pleasure and marshaling it, I can manage common temptations by planning my defense against them. I make pleasure work for me instead of against me. I use pleasure to protect my family and integrity instead of to destroy them. Because of my residual sin nature, it doesn’t mean I never have fallen or never will fall; it does, however, provide a workable, practical approach to managing the mechanics of temptation.
Putting a 'Lock' on Pleasure
Perhaps you’re pushing back at this point: “Sure, Gary, I’d like to unleash the power of pleasure, but I’m too poor, too single, too ill, too [fill in the blank].” These excuses only keep you imprisoned.
When I worked in an office and had young kids waiting for me at home, I couldn’t get away for long walks in the woods, which I really enjoy, but I regularly slipped out for short 20-minute walks in a local park during lunchtime. Don’t let the impossibility of the ideal keep you from doing something constructive.
Douglas Weiss wisely suggests putting a “lock” on our pleasure—that is, protecting it from being the first thing we pass over when life gets busy. If you’re the responsible type, you may allow yourself to enjoy pleasure if every chore is done, the house is spotlessly clean, no one within a 100 miles of you is sick, no one needs anything and the planet has finally achieved world peace.
That’s not going to happen. As a pastor, someone is always going to need your time. As a mom or dad, there will always be uncompleted tasks. As a ministry leader, you’ll always find more to do. Family won't stop calling, friends will ask for favors, and your ministry will require more of you—again and again!
If you always sacrifice your pleasure and never take time to get refreshed, others around you will suffer for it as well. God will have to endure your complaining. Your family will have to endure your attitude. Friends and coworkers will experience the ripple effects of your crabbiness. Your body will suffer the consequences of stress, requiring the care of others. A convicting quote from Elton Trueblood regularly challenges me: “The person who is always available isn't worth much when he is available.” If I don't take time to recharge, my capacity to minister will nosedive.
Your own neuroses, killjoy people, or your spiritual enemy may try to make you feel guilty for ever putting a lock on your necessary times of pleasure, but doing so affirms life, invites you to enjoy God, and becomes an investment in your long-term spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional health. Yes, of course, immediate pleasure sometimes must be sacrificed—but not always.
Make room in your life for pleasure.
Gary Thomas is a writer and founder of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality. He is the author of several books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Holy Available and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith.